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Highlights

The end of the Cold War left the United States with a surplus of weapons-grade plutonium, which poses proliferation and safety risks. Much of this material is found in a key nuclear weapon component known as a pit. The Department of Energy (DOE) plans to dispose of at least 34 metric tons of plutonium by fabricating it into mixed oxide (MOX) fuel for domestic nuclear reactors. To do so, DOE's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is constructing two facilities--a MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF) and a Waste Solidification Building (WSB)--at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. GAO was asked to assess the (1) cost and schedule status of the MFFF and WSB construction projects, (2) status of NNSA's plans for pit disassembly and conversion, (3) status of NNSA's plans to obtain customers for MOX fuel from the MFFF, and (4) actions that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and DOE have taken to provide independent nuclear safety oversight. GAO reviewed NNSA documents and project data, toured DOE facilities, and interviewed officials from DOE, NRC, and nuclear utilities.

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Recommendations

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
National Nuclear Security Administration 1. To address uncertainties associated with NNSA's plans to establish a pit disassembly and conversion capability, the Administrator of the NNSA should develop a plan to mitigate the likely shortfall in plutonium oxide feedstock for the MFFF prior to the start of pit disassembly operations. This plan should include, at a minimum, the following five items: (1) the actions needed to ensure that the Advanced Recovery and Integrated Extraction System (ARIES) project will meet its existing production goals, and the cost and schedule associated with any needed expansion of the project; (2) an assessment of how much additional plutonium material, including fuel-grade plutonium, is available within the DOE complex for use as feedstock for the MFFF; (3) an assessment of the effect on the design and safety of the MFFF from the use of fuel-grade plutonium as feedstock; (4) an assessment of potential changes to the MOX fuel production schedule and the effect of these changes on the cost and schedule for operating the MFFF; and (5) an assessment of the cost and schedule associated with obtaining a limited but sufficient pit disassembly process to produce feedstock for the MFFF.
Closed - Implemented
According to its 60-day response letter, DOE concurred with this recommendation and has several actions planned in response. First, DOE plans to submit a request in the summer of 2011 that will include options for starting some process options at ARIES early to provide plutonium feedstock. Second, Los Alamos National Lab is scheduled to produce 50 kilograms of plutonium annually, beginning in 2012 and running through 2017, to meet its obligation to deliver feedstock to the MOX plant. Third, DOE plans to have utility fuel supply contracts in place by 2013 which it believes will provide sufficient time to determine options for the timing and quantity of MOX fuel production. In light of these ongoing actions, DOE considers this recommendation closed. In summary, NNSA and DOE officials took several steps to develop a plan that was responsive to our recommendation. While DOE changed its overall strategy for plutonium disposition and pit disassembly and conversion capability in the 2013 time frame, DOE's actions (e.g., as reflected in its August 2012 report to Congress)were responsive to this recommendation.
National Nuclear Security Administration 2. To address uncertainties associated with NNSA's plans to establish a pit disassembly and conversion capability, the Administrator of the NNSA should develop a technology maturation plan for the pit disassembly and conversion mission that (1) includes all critical technologies to be used in pit disassembly and conversion operations and (2) provides details (including preliminary cost and schedule estimates) on planned testing and development activities to bring each critical technology up to a sufficient level of maturity.
Closed - Implemented
According to its 60-day response letter, DOE concurred with this recommendation. According to the letter, DOE plans to complete a technology readiness assessment for the Pit Disassembly and Conversion Facility prior to the Critical Decision 1 milestone, which is planned for the summer of 2011. In light of this planned action, DOE considers this recommendation closed. In summary, NNSA and DOE officials took steps to develop a plan that was responsive to our recommendation. While DOE changed its overall strategy for plutonium disposition and pit disassembly and conversion capability in the 2013 time frame, DOE's actions (e.g., as reflected in a May 2011 technology maturation plan for the former Pit Disassemby and Conversion project at K-Area)were responsive to this recommendation.
National Nuclear Security Administration 3. To address uncertainties associated with NNSA's plans to establish a pit disassembly and conversion capability, the Administrator of the NNSA should conduct additional outreach activities to better inform utilities about the MOX fuel program and related incentives.
Closed - Implemented
According to DOE's 60-day response letter, DOE concurred with this recommendation and has several actions underway in response. DOE is negotiating a contract with AREVA that will enable AREVA to market MOX fuel of their own design, and Westinghouse and Hitachi are preparing proposals that would allow them to do the same. NNSA is also creating a backup inventory of low-enriched uranium to serve as fuel supply assurance to potential customers. DOE expects this backup supply to be available by 2013. I contacted NNSA officials concerning this recommendation on March 9, 2012, and July 17, 2014. (See Denver DM# 267891 and 341278 for interviews.) In summary, NNSA and DOE officials took several steps to conduct additional outreach activities with potential customers for MOX fuel. While DOE changed its overall strategy for plutonium disposition and pit disassembly and conversion capability in the 2013 time frame, DOE's actions (e.g., as reflected in a August 2012 letter from a nuclear fuel supplier)were responsive to this recommendation.
Department of Energy 4. To ensure that the WSB and similar projects receive consistent nuclear safety oversight that is independent from the DOE program offices, the Secretary of Energy should revise DOE Order 413.3A to provide that the Office of Health, Safety, and Security (HSS) participate in key project reviews for the WSB and similar high-hazard facilities prior to the beginning of construction activities regardless of their status as nonmajor projects.
Closed - Implemented
DOE revised Order 413 to modify the role of the Office of Health, Safety, and Security as we recommended.
National Nuclear Security Administration 5. To ensure that the WSB and similar projects receive consistent nuclear safety oversight that is independent from the DOE program offices, the Administrator of NNSA should ensure that the Chief of Defense Nuclear Safety (CDNS) conducts oversight activities to the extent called for by DOE Order 413.3A and establishes a formal, standardized approach to reviewing safety documentation.
Closed - Implemented
DOE revised Order 413.3B to revise the role of the Chief of Defense for Nuclear Safety as we recommended.

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